Jan Reurink from Netherlands, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When do federal officials seek to implement politically unpopular regulatory changes? Typically, when public attention is focused elsewhere.

Earlier this year, NPQ spotlighted changes made to gut community development lending rules and rules limiting carbon emissions from automobiles during the early COVID-19 shutdown period. Now, in the waning days of the administration of Donald Trump, come a multitude of actions, including two major environmental regulatory changes and two land-use changes that affect tens of millions of acres.

First, the regulatory changes. In one change, a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule, with the Orwellian name of the “Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information Rule” serves to block the use of scientific data to implement new federal regulatory standards if the studies keep patient data confidential (in other words, pretty much all population health studies). Another last-minute rule, reports Lisa Friedman in the New York Times, shields oil and gas companies “from liability for killing birds unintentionally in oil spills, toxic waste ponds, and other environmental disasters.”

Then there are the land giveaways. One involves auctioning oil and gas leases for fossil fuel extraction in the Alaska Natural Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). An initial auction of sites was held on January 6th, the morning of the attempted coup at the Capitol. The auction itself flopped. All but two parcels were bought by the state of Alaska due to a lack of private bidders. Proceeds for leasing 550,000 acres near Prudhoe Bay netted a meager $14.4 million, most of it at the minimum bid price of $25 an acre. Nonetheless, Interior Deputy Secretary Kate MacGregor still saw fit to declare that morning that “today is truly historic,” proving to be correct in a manner that she might not have anticipated.

While the initial auction might have flopped, the stakes remain high, as Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson in the Washington Post detail:

Then yesterday, in the New York Times, Lisa Friedman and Catrin Einhorn reported that the Trump administration is removing 3.4 million acres of land from protections designed to protect the habitat of the nonprofit spotted owl in Washington, Oregon, and northern California.

The federal rule, issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, was developed in response to a 2013 legal settlement that the administration of Barack Obama had reached with the timber industry, but the land involved in the rule just issued is more than 15 times the amount previously proposed. As Friedman and Einhorn point out, “Rather than trim about 200,000 acres of critical habitat in Oregon, as the agency initially proposed in August, the new plan will eliminate protections from 3.4 million acres across Washington, California and Oregon.”

Resistance to this slew of last-minute actions to dismantle environmental protections is likely to be fierce, however. Lawsuits are one obvious vehicle that many nonprofit environmental protection groups are expected to use. Another tool is the Congressional Review Act, which, note Friedman and Einhorn is “a procedural tool that allows lawmakers to nullify recently finalized regulations with a simple majority vote.”

The federal actions in Alaska have also generated widespread opposition from the Alaskan Native community and others. “In their push to sell off our lands to the fossil fuel industry, the Trump administration has engaged in a corrupt process and disrespected and dismissed the Indigenous people,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, tells Eilperin and Mufson. “We will continue to fight this illegal sale in court, and we call on President-elect Biden to act immediately to protect our lands from destructive drilling once and for all.”

Many companies, even potential beneficiaries of the federal oil drilling leases, intentionally have steered clear of getting involved. Eilperin and Mufson report that “America’s six largest banks and Canada’s five biggest banks have all pledged not to back energy exploration on the refuge.”

Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden was also quite emphatic that his firm was not interested in bidding. “Oh, no, no, no…we’re going to be very selective…and I can tell you at the North Slope or offshore Alaska, it’s not going to be part of that.”—Steve Dubb